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White Foods
The Worthy and the Worrisome

by Matilde Parente, MD

A few easy cooking and serving tricks can help lower the glycemic index of potatoes, thereby slowing their digestion and conversion to glucose in the bloodstream. For example, try mashing the starchy potato flesh with an equal amount of a pulpy vegetable such as broccoli, celery root, or cauliflower. Combining potatoes with a low-carbohydrate, fiber-rich vegetable helps lower the glycemic index of a potato dish and makes it more filling. Use a vinegar- or lemon-juice-based dressing in a potato salad to slow its digestion. By chilling your salad overnight in the refrigerator, some of the potato starch will resist digestion and behave more like fiber than digestible carbohydrate.

When you eat potatoes, be sure to eat their fiber-rich skins (as long as you are not affected by gastroparesis, or slowed stomach emptying). Most of the five grams of fiber in a medium, five-ounce potato is insoluble. This fiber type is high in cellulose, which does not dissolve in water and is not digested in the intestines. Foods high in insoluble fiber help promote satiety, or a feeling of fullness; bulk up stools; and aid in regular bowel movements.

Pasta, like potatoes, is shunned by some people as a “bad” white food. But prepared al dente, or firm to the bite, the GI for pasta falls at the lower end of pasta’s 30 to 60 range. As with any carbohydrate, portion control is important for people with diabetes and those looking to lose weight.

Newer, tastier choices in whole-wheat pasta offer a nutritious alternative to the classic variety. These pastas usually contain more protein and fiber than regular dry pasta. Soba, a Japanese noodle made from buckwheat, is a tasty, fiber-rich, and often gluten-free choice that is lower in carbohydrate and calories than regular wheat-based pasta. Buckwheat also contains more protein than most grains.

Try bulking up pasta by serving it with low-carbohydrate vegetables, and go easy on salty or calorie-laden sauces. To make a satisfying, one-dish meal, add a modest amount of lean protein, such as lentils, chicken, shrimp, or scallops. For a low-fat sauce, use a splash of the pasta’s cooking water to “cream” a small amount of ricotta cheese into your pasta. Or for a fresh, wholesome dressing, use a lemon, herb, and olive oil mixture.

Bread, like potatoes, is frowned upon by some people as a source of quickly digested carbohydrate. Again, paying attention to portion size and whether a bread is made from whole grains can steer you toward healthy choices. White rice also often comes under fire, despite lower rates of diabetes and overweight in many Asian countries where rice is a staple. Americanized versions of Asian cuisine, often perceived as healthier dining choices, can come with a high sodium load and large amounts of white rice. As with bread, limit your intake — including that of more nutritious, higher-fiber brown rice. Select rice with a lower GI than plain, long-grain white rice, such as jasmine, basmati, brown, or parboiled or converted rice.

Consider limiting the carbohydrate load of your meal by replacing bread, pasta, or rice with barley, lentils, or beans. These three lower-GI foods make filling, nutritious partners to nonstarchy vegetables and lean meats, whether in soups, side dishes, or main dishes. Remember that all carbohydrate-containing foods, whether white or brown, can add up to push your daily carbohydrate intake beyond desirable limits.

Salt sometimes shows up on lists of white foods to avoid. Indeed, recent studies have confirmed that most Americans consume too much salt. A 2012 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported an average intake of nearly 3,300 milligrams (mg) of sodium per day, not counting salt added at the table. About half of all sodium consumed came from 10 food categories, with breads, cold cuts, pizza, poultry, soups, sandwiches, and cheeses leading the pack.

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